Saturday, June 13, 2015

The H.F.B.C. and the Foundations of Football: Beginnings of a Game : 1873 Membership Shingle

The Harvard University Foot-Ball Club was formed in December of 1872.

In its first full year (1873), membership certificates for this club were issued. Morton Prince, player and secretary for the HUFBC, designed and had made these certificates as well as a seal for this organization. The seal, made by Henry Mitchell (master engraver of Boston), features a round football, a motto of “Semper Surgens”, and the letters H.F.B.C. (see photo). Pictured is one of the earliest football documents in existence.

Morton Prince also authored a section of the H Book of Harvard Athletics (1923) entitled “History of Football at Harvard, 1800 – 1875 (June)” (pgs. 311 – 371), and he is considered the preeminent early Harvard football historian. This exact certificate is reproduced on pg. 351 of the H Book, as part of Prince’s work.

                    Morton Prince’s 1873 Harvard University Foot-Ball Club Certificate (or “Shingle”)

                                                                  Close-up of the wax seal

The Shingle 

The membership certificate was referred to as a “shingle” and required a one-dollar fee to purchase. This membership allowed for support of the organization and for members to play football recreationally as part of the club.

Interestingly, this shingle is the only example that would have been completed and signed by the team captain. It is signed by the football team’s captain, Henry R. Grant, as Morton Prince “did not wish to sign, as secretary, on his own shingle”, according to his accounting in the H Book of Harvard Athletics. This certificate remained one of Prince’s prized possessions throughout his life.

Harvard Rejects Yale’s Request 

In October of 1873, Yale contacted Columbia, Harvard, Rutgers, and Princeton, proposing to establish an intercollegiate football association with a standard set of rules. Many from Harvard felt uneasy about Yale’s proposal. For example, the Harvard Advocate wrote on October 17, 1873: “If we should attend such a convention, as Yale proposes we should naturally feel bound to agree to the code of rules favored by the majority of the committee. It is evident that the result could not fail to be unsatisfactory to the football players at Harvard”. What was termed the “Boston game” was equivalent to the Harvard Game in 1873, in which “a player was permitted to pick up the ball, run with it, throw it, or pass it. He could also seize and hold an adversary to prevent him from getting the ball”.  In contrast, the games played by the other four schools were essentially “all foot work” during this time. Given the drastic changes they would have needed to implement into their game, is quite understandable why Harvard might have viewed Yale’s request with apprehension.

Upon receipt of Yale’s letter by the HUBFC, a meeting was held by the officers of this football club (headed up by Captain Grant and Secretary Prince) and other members of this organization. It was at this meeting that Captain Grant and the rest of the team decided to reject Yale’s proposal to form an intercollegiate football association. In a letter from Grant to the secretary of the Yale Football Association, he explained the differences in the style of games Harvard played from the other institutions and, some say, tactfully belittled the others’ style of play. In his reply to Yale, Captain Grant states, “The feeling in the college was unanimous in maintaining our rules at the expense of matches with other colleges”. Harvard thus did not join the intercollegiate football association, and the path of American Football was forever changed.

Harvard plays McGill 

In early 1874, Captain Gant received an unexpected letter from David Roger, captain of the of McGill University team in Canada, suggesting the schools play several matches against one another. Harvard’s Grant and Prince were the two key Harvard team members to work out the games’ specifics and the rules under which they would be played.  The games needed to be played in Cambridge, as the Harvard administration would not allow the team to travel during the school year while classes were in session.

Two matches were scheduled for the 14th and 15th of May, 1874, at Jarvis Field in Cambridge. The first was played under Harvard rules, and the second under McGill’s rugby regulations. The McGill players showed up in uniform (the first time this had been seen by Harvard players) and the Harvard players, although not in their normal “oldest clothes”, appeared in white undershirts, dark pants, and magenta handkerchiefs on their heads. Still, the Harvard players were a bit embarrassed.  They won the game by a score of 3-to-0, and fought to a 0-to-0 tie the following afternoon. This second match is considered the first intercollegiate rugby game to take place in America.

In each of these two games, the teams played with eleven men per side. The “Boston game” allowed for between ten and fifteen per side, although they were normally referred to as “the eleven”. McGill was accustomed to playing with any number between ten and twenty. Originally, the matches were to be played with fifteen men, however only eleven men were able to make the trip from Montreal.

In the famous composite photograph from the Harvard vs. McGill 1874 fall contest, when Harvard travelled to Montreal, Morton Prince is easily recognizable. I have him circled in the photograph. I have also included a photograph of the Harvard’s spring 1874 foot-ball team, inclusive of Captain Grant. In the fall of 1874, Arthur Ellis assumed the position of Captain.

                                     Harvard vs. McGill, Fall of 1874. Morton Prince is circled.

                      Harvard University Foot-Ball Club Captain Henry Grant is seated at center 

This certificate, or shingle, is an extraordinary example of football documentation from the absolute earliest days of football. Certainly the most significant early American football document that we are aware of. It stems from two of the most pivotal players from an historic and crucial phase of the game. Harvard’s rejection of the style of play that constituted association football in 1873  and its subsequent adoption of the rugby game as a result of the Harvard games against McGill in 1874 are the only reason we have football today as we know it and not a game than more closely resembles soccer.  In the words of Morton Prince, “If Harvard had not refused (to join the Association …) it is highly probable that the modern game played today – like American Rugby – would ever have been evolved. Instead, all the Universities, colleges and schools today would be playing Association rules, - practically soccer”. After playing McGill, Harvard adopted their rugby game, considering it a worthy extension, even a superior replacement, for its own brand of football.

In 1876, the Intercollegiate Football Association was formed by Harvard, Columbia and Princeton using slightly modified rugby rules. The rest quickly fell into place and, as is stated so often, the rest is history.

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